VATICAN CITY — A senior Vatican cardinal predicted Saturday that there will be no change in the Catholic Church's practice and teaching about marriage, divorce and the reception of Communion at an upcoming meeting of bishops on family issues.
Cardinal George Pell told a gathering of conservative, anti-abortion Catholic activists in town for an annual "March for Life" that he believed the October synod "will massively endorse the tradition" of the church.
"I don't anticipate any deviation from that at all," Pell told the few hundred people gathered in a Vatican audience hall.
Pope Francis convened the two-year study on family issues in hopes of providing more compassionate pastoral care for families confronted with increasing rates of cohabitation, divorce and acceptance of gay unions.
Specifically, he wants the church to adopt a more merciful approach to Catholics who divorce and remarry civilly. Church teaching holds that without an annulment, or a church decree that the first marriage was null, such Catholics are living in sin and cannot receive Communion.
While many progressive Catholics have praised Francis' overtures, conservatives say his initiative has only created confusion over the church's true teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and homosexuality. They have called for Francis to clarify his intent and the church's beliefs before the next meeting opens in October.
The Voice of the Family umbrella group of conservative activists met in Rome this week and invited Pell, the Vatican's finance prefect, to speak at their conference on "Why we are worried: Key issues at the family synod." Sitting in the front row was American Cardinal Raymond Burke, who along with the Australian Pell and like-minded African cardinals were at the forefront in insisting on maintaining the status quo at last year's first round of the synod.
Significantly, Pell mentioned Francis only once in his 40-minute speech on the role of parents as educators, when he lamented that most pilgrims who flock to Francis' weekly audiences have a maximum of two children in tow. Conversely, when asked what role Pope John Paul II's conservative teachings on the family have today, Pell repeated the title that the questioner used to refer to the Polish pope: "St. John Paul the Great."
Conservatives have complained that Francis has focused too much on questions of economic inequality and not enough on abortion and sexual morality, which were hallmarks of John Paul and retired Pope Benedict XVI. Francis has said he doesn't need to dwell on such issues since the church's teachings are well-known and that what the church needs today is more mercy.
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield.